It had been anticipated that XXX Corps would reach Arnhem in two to three days, however as dusk fell on Wednesday 20th September, the 1st Airborne Division could detect no signs of their approach to the south. The ground forces had been having problems of their own. There was only a single road leading to Arnhem, and XXX Corps was faced with the logistical nightmare of passing twenty thousand vehicles along its narrow, sixty-four mile length in just three days. Even with minimal opposition, frequent blockages and delays were expected. To make matters worse the road was only wide enough, at best, to allow two vehicles to drive side by side, and the terrain from top to bottom was ideal for rearguard and delaying actions by even a small enemy force.
At 13:30 on Sunday 17th September, the Guards Armoured Division, led by the Irish Guards Group, began to move forward behind a creeping artillery barrage. The break-out was a costly affair and the Division was badly delayed; the Irish Guards lost nine tanks in just two minutes before they, aided by rocket-firing Typhoons of the 2nd Tactical Air Force, overwhelmed the German front line positions. It had been hoped that XXX Corps would link up with the 101st Airborne Division in Eindhoven after just a few hours, however by the end of the first day they had only achieved half of the distance, just seven miles. The Irish Guards halted overnight, due to being exhausted after having been in action for most of the day, however the remaining formations of the Guards Armoured Division made no attempt to push on during the night. The advance, therefore, was needlessly stalled for twelve hours. No firm enemy positions had been established by morning, however isolated pockets of German infantry, armour and anti-tank weapons made good use of the excellent cover along the road to ambush and delay XXX Corps.
Nevertheless, the vanguard of the Guards Armoured Division entered Eindhoven at midday; the main force did not arrive until late afternoon. It was in Eindhoven that the advance was inadvertently hindered by the local Dutch people, who blocked all the streets as they celebrated their liberation. A far greater setback, however, was the fact that the crucial bridge over the Wilhelmina Canal at Son had been destroyed by the Germans before the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division could capture it. All was not lost as, somewhere along XXX Corps' colossal column of vehicles, were no fewer than two thousand three hundred trucks and nine thousand engineers, specifically dedicated to the purpose of constructing Bailey Bridges. The sappers worked throughout the night to bridge the canal and by Tuesday morning the advance resumed, however XXX Corps were now thirty-six hours behind schedule and forty miles short of Arnhem. The efforts of the 101st Airborne Division at Veghel and the 82nd at Grave, however, enabled rapid progress to be made, and by 10:00 that morning the Grenadier Guards arrived in Nijmegen.
Here, however, they faced a greater challenge. The 82nd Airborne Division had been dropped over a particularly wide expanse of terrain and were having difficulties. Principally, the vital Nijmegen road and railway bridges, the only way to reach Arnhem across the huge River Waal, was still in German hands, and unless either of them could be captured intact then the 1st Airborne Division would be completely cut-off without hope of relief. The 82nd had given priority to the capture of the Groesbeek Heights, a very large area of high ground which overlooked the entire region, the retention of which was extremely important to the fluid progress of XXX Corps. Nevertheless, the Heights were of secondary importance, and only a single battalion was spared for the capture of Nijmegen Bridge; it set off late and fell back from the town when it found that resistance was too strong. Much to the surprise of all, the Germans made no attempt to destroy the Bridge; if they had done so then Operation Market Garden would have ended there and then, however Feldmarschall Model had insisted on leaving it intact so that he could use it for a counterattack of his own. Yet in direct contravention of his orders, the commander of the 10th S.S. Panzer Division, Brigadeführer Harmel, had ordered the Bridge to be prepared for demolition in the event of the British capturing it.
Bogged down, the Americans decided to wait for the arrival of XXX Corps before making a serious attempt to capture the Bridge, by which time elements of the 10th S.S. Panzer Division had secured not only the northern bank, but some five hundred troops had also gained a foothold in the town itself on the southern side of the River. The Grenadier Guards, with the 2nd Battalion the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment under command, began to attack the Germans in Nijmegen during the afternoon, but their every endeavour was fiercely resisted.
Brigadier-General Gavin, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, proposed a daring and extremely dangerous means of capturing the Bridge. Whilst his troops and the Grenadiers battled for Nijmegen, he intended to use boats to put two battalions of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment across the Waal, a mile to the west of the Bridge. They would then seize the northern end whilst the Grenadiers broke through in the south and crossed over.
There was much delay in bringing the boats forward along XXX Corps' column, and when they arrived the assault troops were shocked to discover that they were not powered craft, but flimsily-constructed canvas paddle boats. At 15:00 on Wednesday 20th September, the far bank was bombarded by one hundred British and American artillery pieces whilst RAF Typhoons strafed and fired rockets against enemy strong-points. Under the cover of a smokescreen laid down by the tanks of the Irish Guards, the two assault companies of the 504th Parachute Infantry ran their boats into the River and furiously paddled their way across. The very highest praise is worthy of these troops, as they were not trained to undertake an assault crossing and they were terribly exposed to machine-gun, rifle and mortar fire as they courageously paddled across the perilously wide River. Despite very heavy casualties, the American paratroopers gained the northern bank, overwhelmed the German positions which had been firing on them, and then proceeded to capture the northern ends of both the road and the railway bridges, inflicting severe casualties upon the enemy as they did so. During this time, the Grenadier Guards and 505th Parachute Infantry had finally overcome resistance at the southern end of Nijmegen Bridge and the first tanks began to cross at 19:10.
Brigadeführer Harmel ordered the charges, which had been laid across the Bridge, to be detonated, but they failed to explode. Quite why this happened has never been conclusively explained. It has been claimed that a member of the Dutch Resistance cut the detonation wires on the previous day, however this is now thought to be unlikely. It is possible that accompanying Royal Engineers could have performed the same function as the tanks began to cross, or quite simply that the firing mechanism failed to work. What is certain is that by late afternoon on Wednesday 20th September, Nijmegen Bridge was finally in Allied hands and only the mere eleven miles to Arnhem separated XXX Corps from victory.